El Faro is an investigative newsroom that shines a light on corruption in Central America. Subscribe to our newsletter.
On Tuesday night, Nayib Bukele finally announced what has been apparent for months in San Salvador: He will ask for a six-month leave starting December 1, while a “presidential designee” takes his place until, as all polling predicts, he assumes a second term on June 1.
“I will ask the Assembly for a leave of absence to focus on the campaign,” he said in a national broadcast, in presence of his cabinet members and Executive Branch officials.
Six articles of the Salvadoran Constitution prohibit immediate presidential reelection; one article bars the candidacy of “[h]e who has filled the Presidency for more than six months, consecutive or not, during the period immediately prior to or within the last six months prior to the beginning of the presidential period.”
The president, who will run again on February 4 with the nod of the Constitutional Chamber, which his party illegally imposed in 2021, appears to honor the latter part —“within the last six months”— while ignoring the rest.
Past 10 at night on Thursday, the Legislative Assembly —where his party Nuevas Ideas has a supermajority— granted the permission to the president. The legislative decree establishes that during this period Bukele will maintain all of the prerogatives of the position and will continue to use the presidential residence.
Strikingly, his leave of absence will, according to the decree, “of course not forfeit the position that he holds [“investidura”, in the original in Spanish],” apparently contradicting the very motive of the leave.
In his place the Assembly confirmed Claudia Juana Rodríguez de Guevara, private secretary of the Presidency and head of the Department of Municipal Works, which centralizes local development projects across the country.
Rodríguez has no political experience or prominence, but has been for more than a decade part of the Bukele family’s inner circle. She was the financial manager of the Bukele brothers’ ad agency Obermet, Nayib’s treasurer as two-time mayor, and financial director of the Presidency under this administration. During the pandemic she was put in charge of managing $2 billion in loans to mitigate the effects of the crisis.
She also founded in 2011 a company administered by Assembly President Ernesto Castro, that received more than half a million dollars from Alba Petróleos —the Salvadoran subsidiary of Venezuela's state-owned petroleum company— and paid at least $24 thousand in Nayib Bukele’s credit card bills when he was mayor of San Salvador.
Not the first
This maneuver provides a political pretext for Bukele’s base and the international community, but it has drawn condemnation from constitutional experts and opposition parties. Arena, the largest opposition party, wrote in a statement that “what is intended today is to give the appearance of legality to a violation of the Constitution.”
In the legislative debate last night, Dina Argueta of the FMLN confronted the ruling party: “You lean on a Constitutional Chamber that you imposed, one that is not independent from Casa Presidencial.”
“Scenarios where a president stops being president are grave situations that must be demonstrated, even in person, to the Legislative Assembly,” opposition legislator Johnny Wright, of Nuestro Tiempo, told El Diario de Hoy. “A leave of absence does not mean that the president stops being president.”
Fordham professor Héctor Lindo notes that two 20th-century dictators in El Salvador handed over power for months to a safe seat-warmer: in 1914, Carlos Meléndez designated his brother-in-law; in 1934, Maximiliano Hernández Martínez stepped down, but remained head of the Army.
“Both maintained political control after depositing the presidency,” explains Lindo. “[And] both pillaged state coffers to finance their electoral campaigns.”
Bukele himself appeared to confirm on Tuesday his sleight of hand: “I don’t know if some of you thought, ‘I guess this means the president won’t be as involved as before, so we’ll be able to get away with something,’” he said in the national broadcast. “The reverse will be true: We will increase even more the oversight of the work of the government.”
Denver University political scientist Jesse Acevedo argues “Bukele running for reelection is part of a long line of authoritarian presidents seeking to extend their rule under the guise of democracy. Daniel Ortega has consolidated a closed authoritarian regime in Nicaragua, while Juan Orlando Hernández, of Honduras, was extradited to the U.S.”
“Surrounded by thieves”
As if he were really saying farewell to the presidency instead of working to conserve it, Bukele titled his Tuesday night live-streamed address “The Right Legacy.” Sitting next to his Minister of Security was Attorney General Rodolfo Delgado.
“I want to publicly ask [Delgado] that we investigate all those who are present here,” he said. “Some presidents are in prison or are fugitives, but most are remembered as thieves (...). I don’t want to be remembered as the president who didn’t steal, but was surrounded by thieves.”
It is worth noting that, by law, the AG does not take requests from the president; he acts upon evidence ex officio, such as in public denunciations or through formal complaints.
But more to the point, it is not the first time Bukele calls for an investigation of his government. On Mar. 18, 2020, four days after decreeing the Covid-19 emergency, Bukele publicly asked the OAS-backed anti-corruption commission CICIES to help prosecutors investigate the execution of pandemic spending.
When the commission did so, he expelled it. In June 2021, after the CICIES transferred 12 cases of alleged Executive Branch corruption to the AG, Bukele declined to renew its contract. The cases were later closed by Delgado, and the unit in charge dissolved. Those prosecutors are now in exile, many of them in Washington.
Journalists have also revealed government corruption. During Covid-19 alone, the Minister of Health dealt contracts to his family, and the Vice Minister of Security and his mother stole and resold food relief. The U.S. Treasury issued Magnitsky sanctions against the Chief of Cabinet in 2021 for leading a “multi-ministry, multimillion-dollar corruption scheme.”
All of the implicated officials continue in their roles.
Moreover, in May 2021 the Assembly granted immunity from prosecution for all pandemic-related government purchases.
An odd election
Less than two months remain before an election in which Bukele rewrote the rules. His party started by reforming a law that forbade electoral changes within a year of the vote. They then cut 30 percent of the Assembly races and 83 percent of mayors’ offices.
The campaign is underway amid a state of exception where citizens —including for opposition candidates— have been stripped of rights such as privacy of communications.
Just this week, human rights monitor Cristosal reported the instrumentalization of the state of exception to intimidate civil society groups. Cristosal, which has documented evidence of crimes against humanity committed by prison authorities, says its operating license is in danger of being revoked.
And FMLN party leader Óscar Ortiz denounced days ago that the Treasury Ministry has withheld public financing that the party is owed from the 2019 and 2021 elections.
Meanwhile, the government spent $60-100 million on hosting Miss Universe last month, where Bukele —president and candidate— gave a speech to 113 million viewers.
“There is no sense of equity in an electoral competition if the government becomes a financier of ruling-party candidates,” wrote Central American University. “When the President becomes a candidate, it becomes impossible to differentiate between the two.”
Last night, while the Assembly approved his six-month leave, Bukele was livestreaming the groundbreaking of a future national soccer stadium alongside the Chinese ambassador.
The day before, he also used his presidential powers of convening a national broadcast to order all television and radio frequencies to stream a half-hour guided tour of a sprawling new 911 emergency response system with dozens of new ambulances, a call center, a full-service clinic, and helicopters.
“We’re about to start building the CECOC, the Center for the Confinement of Corruption. It’s no joke. It’s close to the CECOT [Center for the Confinement of Terrorists],” he had said on Tuesday, in reference to the construction of a new prison. “I’m telling you here and now: Don’t ask me to be an accomplice to anything illegal, because I won’t do it.”
This article first appeared in the December 1 edition of the El Faro English newsletter. Subscribe here to tune into Central America.